A large percentage of immigration lawyers are solo practitioners or run small practices. Some launch their firms after working elsewhere for some time while others go at it alone right after they graduate. Both options are viable, but given that working at a firm for a year or two doesn’t necessarily teach you what you need to run an entire practice, and that law schools don’t teach that either, new attorneys stay at bigger firms for longer, or never break off on their own at all, out of fear of failure. But there is another way: legal incubators.
Legal incubators were a response to the recession of the late 2000s, which affected the job prospects of recent law school graduates. The ABA has registered over 70 legal incubators nationwide - although some have shut down during the pandemic - most of which are run by law schools. States with large populations, such as New York and California, have the largest number of legal incubators.
To see the number of incubators in your state, check out this American Bar Association map. The ABA also keeps a directory of all current and planned incubators, as well as an option to subscribe to their listservs to hear about new initiatives first.
In 2021, the ABA ran a survey, updating a prior, 2016 survey, on legal incubators and issued a report. Most incubator law firms practice family law, but regardless of the area of law, survey respondents, which included both current and former legal incubator participants, reported high levels of career satisfaction and other insightful results.
So let’s examine the features of legal incubators so you can determine whether you, as a recent graduate or a law student, could benefit from joining a legal incubator, now or in the future.
Legal incubators are designed to help lawyers develop and launch law practices while expanding access to underserved populations. This is not unlike incubators in the tech industry, for example, where startup entrepreneurs and developers are hosted by incubators through their product development stage and get access to mentorship, troubleshooting, and funding while taking their product to a point where it’s market-ready.
As part of a legal incubator, participants, who must be licensed attorneys, have access to space, mentoring, and training, with the goal of giving them practical experience so they can then start their own practices more confidently and successfully.
How exactly do legal incubators help?
There are two valuable reasons why joining a legal incubator as a new lawyer could make sense for you:
One of the most common challenges that recent law graduates face when they’re trying to start their own firms is realizing that practicing law on your own is not just practicing law, it’s also owning a business. Yet none of those important aspects of owning a business - like marketing, accounting, client acquisition and retention, networking, etc. - are taught as part of the law school curriculum. The result of this omission is that when the time comes to apply this knowledge, lawyers are finding themselves lost and with a lack of support. In addition, many lawyers graduate without knowing which area of law they want to focus on. Joining a legal incubator program can help you, through relevant experience, narrow down what you would like to focus on based on your interests and goals, as well as the needs of your community.
Many of the legal incubator participants that answered the ABA survey on legal incubators said they had tried to establish their own firm before joining the incubator, and struggled to make it on their own: The ABA survey results state that “Of the 22 [respondents] who had tried to establish a practice before joining the incubator, they identified the lack of substantive law knowledge as the biggest challenge followed by isolation or not having a support system and not being able to make significant income. The expense of space and other overhead, marketing and getting clients, and lack of business experience were also cited by some as being challenging.”
By surrounding yourself with a support system that includes mentoring, networking, and assistance with some of the most concerning aspects of opening your own firm, like setting up your own office space, you can occupy yourself with learning and growing as opposed to merely surviving. Since you can still choose your own clients while in an incubator, it also provides an opportunity to develop your expertise in the niche of law you want to focus on. Indeed, the ABA survey notes that 8% of the participants in legal incubator programs focused on immigration law.
To further understand the value of the experience recent law graduates are getting by joining a legal incubator, the ABA survey examined the percentage of time new lawyers spent on a variety of tasks during their time in legal incubators. Results showed that most of the time lawyers are doing actual case work that would result in billable hours; in fact, survey respondents calculated this as almost half of their work hours. Next in the workload is administrative work, and pro bono work, which is a requirement of most legal incubators.
Overall, survey respondents described the work they did as part of their legal incubator as reflective of the real juggling act most law firm owners experience, where they have to wear many hats and complete tasks beyond case work, such as administrative and marketing. Education and training consisted of pro-bono work, CLEs and one-on-one work with mentors, much like what full-time lawyers do as well. In other words, lawyers who participated in legal incubators felt that they were able to maintain autonomy and feel like they were fully practicing law, despite being in a more controlled setting.
In light of the insights this legal incubator survey showed, we’ve put together a few important takeaways on the value of legal incubators and some of the challenges of the legal profession in general:
Law is a competitive career, and law schools are not adequately preparing lawyers to enter a challenging job market.
Legal incubators started to gain traction at a time when the job market was severely constrained. Even when the economy had recovered, survey respondents shared that they were still struggling to launch successful independent practices due to the lack of knowledge of business management practices and their lack of experience in case law. Legal incubators provide a structure where new lawyers can supplement those knowledge deficiencies in the business aspect of running their own practice and acquire practical experience that will position them to succeed.
Most lawyers are concerned with the sustainability of their firms.
Law firms become sustainable by acquiring and retaining clients predictably and successfully. Moreover, learning about marketing and business development is key to sustainability. For example, in immigration law, understanding that a client may bring value in the form of fees paid for case processing more than once through their journey (what is called Customer Lifetime Value or LTV) is important to ensure you are nurturing leads and maintaining contact with clients adequately over time.
Autonomy is a powerful motivator for those starting their own firms.
“Making it on their own,” including setting their own schedule, choosing an area of law, and autonomous decision-making, were the top reasons why new lawyers joined legal incubators and then went on to start their own firms. While that independence can be very rewarding, getting to a sustainable level of autonomy is also challenging. It also bears the question of whether larger firms are creating work environments that are welcoming to those lawyers who value autonomy or not. Ultimately, making your own decisions, setting your own schedule, and picking your own cases is a great way to ensure your legal career aligns with your values and your life goals. A legal incubator can be a safe environment to develop the skills and structure to make that autonomy sustainable.
The hope is that this article is helpful to young immigration attorneys or soon-to-be immigration attorneys who might want to practice on their own and are looking for a more structured way to learn the ropes. When you do, let Docketwise help you manage your immigration cases, forms, and more.
With our client relationship management and case management tools, full library of immigration forms, easy-to-use client questionnaires and industry-leading API integrations, Docketwise helps you stay up to date on all your immigration cases, communicate easily with your clients, and otherwise build and manage your immigration law firm.